Inside Lamborghini's radical tech transformation

From mad, raw machines to hybrids

Maurizio Reggiani cocks his ear, listening as a $200,000 Lamborghini rips by. In fact, a smile touches his lips every single time a Huracán LP580-2 circles the racetrack, V-10 engine vibrating through the desert air. But it never causes a lag in his conversation.

As the longtime director of R&D at Lamborghini, Reggiani comes by multitasking naturally. A good thing, too, as the brand, owned by the VW Group, now has more models and upcoming projects than at any time in its 50-plus-year history. It may not be obvious, but Lamborghini is in the midst of a tech revolution.

The brand has always been hyper-masculine; ludicrous top speeds and even more ludicrous designs were the only things that mattered. But in the last five or so years, it has quietly and rather spectacularly transformed into a place where top-tier engineering and technology are as important as huge engines and crazy designs.

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

lp580-2

With the aid of the VW Group’s resources, Reggiani and his team are responsible for this sea change. "When I arrived at Lamborghini 20 years ago, we had only 45 people in R&D. Now we have more than 300," he tells me. We are sitting, incongruously, on leather couches placed on the concrete pits at a racetrack in Qatar. "This has become the value of engineering to the company, and it shows how we have changed. Lamborghini used to be primarily a design company, but now we have the right mix between design and engineering."

The obvious example, says Reggiani, is the car that we’re testing today, the LP580-2. By all appearances, it would be the least tech-intensive car in the portfolio: a derivation of the all-wheel-drive Huracán, it is unapologetically rear-wheel drive in an era of all-wheel-drive supercars. It is also the least expensive model the carmaker will sell.

The car has a powerful mid-mounted engine and a brilliant exterior design. But the true secret sauce is the computer brain, which allows for radically different handling dynamics. In sport mode, the car intentionally exaggerates sideways drifts, which makes it slower around a track, but far more fun to drive.

lp580-2

"If I am a new Lamborghini customer, I want to appear to be the best driver in the world. After two laps, you say, now I can also drift. It is very easy to generate emotion from whomever is sitting next to you." He grins broadly.

"Design is always fundamental, because it’s what people see. But now they also expect great technology and sharp engineering solutions." The company isn’t interested in the kind of tech innovation you find in executive sedans like a Mercedes S 500: the air atomizers, the autonomous driving features. Lamborghini is still centered on the fun of driving a super sports car. The tech has to support those functions first, he says.

Lamborghini isn’t interested in the kind of tech you find in executive sedans

The Huracán shares the same platform and much of the technology with the Audi R8. (Audi is also owned by the VW Group.) Audi has always played up its innovations, whereas Lamborghini has historically struggled with tech. Decades of Lamborghinis have utilized AWD. But best of luck finding an old Lambo with a working air conditioner.

I’ve personally experienced the transformation. I’ve driven early 1990s Diablos and Murciélagos from the 2000s, and they were as hairy-chested as one might imagine. And I have driven every variation of the Gallardo. The Gallardo began as the poor man’s Lambo, and each succeeding variation got better and better, until the last models off the line were very good indeed.

urus

But its replacement, the Huracán, is something else entirely. It is sharper and angrier than the R8, but it is also more livable and capable of daily driving than any Lamborghini ever made. In both AWD and rear-wheel versions, it’s a hell of a car.

Throughout those years, I’ve known Reggiani as a driving force in the company alongside CEO Stephan Winkelmann, who has been rumored to soon be moving to Audi’s Quattro GmbH division, responsible for Audi’s highest-performance models. (If Winkelmann does end up there, it shows how much faith VW Group shows in Lamborghini’s current leadership.) Reggiani, 56, grew up in northern Italy, not far from Lambo’s HQ. He is unfailingly cheerful and candid, admitting when a car has faults, and he’s always ready with a funny story.

And, for the first time ever, he’s talking about the probability of a plug-in hybrid.

It has to happen. Lamborghini has to meet emission requirements, of course, and the pressure on all of the manufacturers under the VW Group have increased since the diesel scandal broke.

A hybrid powertrain will eventually launch, most likely, on Lamborghini’s upcoming SUV, the Urus. It will initially appear by 2018 with a potent 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V-8. Sometime after, we’ll see a plug-in hybrid. "The first application that battery technology will likely be found in is the Urus. In terms of packaging and weight, an SUV makes more sense than a super sports car," Reggiani says.

asterion

Lamborghini showed a hybrid concept car at the 2014 Paris Motor Show, the Asterion concept, and it’s been giving its engineering chief pains ever since. Customers and reporters keep asking about it. "It was a technology demonstrator to show what we can do, but the Asterion would not be a super sports car. It’s more of a car for cruising, and in this moment that is not in our plan."

Reggiani argues that batteries are still too heavy to use on a supercar. "You destroy the layout of the car when you put in more or less 200 kilos (440 pounds), like we did with the Asterion. You have to build the layout around the battery pack, and right now those batteries are outdated too quickly."

He also notes that they don’t want to charge "platinum prices" for such a supercar. When asked if he’s referring to the LaFerrari and McLaren P1 — both hybrid supercars with prices well over $1 million — Maurizio says nothing but looks at me knowingly. "I’m sure our hybrid supercar will come, but only when the capacity of the battery and electric engine will be able to fulfill our specifications."

Another LP580-2 zooms by; he tilts his head and finally pauses. "But for today, we have this car. What do you think, should we go out and take a ride?"

The best of Verge Video